Achievement = inspiration + effort?


Why is it that continuous improvement is recognised and rewarded in athletics, but not always in education?
Bill Watkin discusses.

Until recently, 2012 looked like a good year for education from many perspectives: schools have greater freedom (especially over the curriculum) than for many years; more than 50 per cent of secondary schools are now academies, with more control over their own destiny; groups/chains of schools are developing fast; and schools are taking greater responsibility for teacher training and professional development.

The sporting events of the summer brought particular pleasure to many schools, their staff and students who have taken part in or enjoyed the Olympics and Paralympics in one way or another.

It was a joy to hear the news that Jessica Applegate, a student at Ormiston Venture Academy, won gold in the 200 metres freestyle at the Paralympics, setting a Games record. Here is a young person demonstrating very publicly the results of dedication and hard work, with 4am starts for training before school. Her achievements are inspiring children across the country.

So why are improving academic results not celebrated in the same way? As one head recently pointed out: “For the past two decades the record times for the 100 metres sprint have continuously improved. During that time there have been great investments in facilities, research, resources, environment and health, and improvements in training, teaching and coaching. The results of all this development and progress are enthusiastically admired and celebrated by the public, politicians and the media as evidence of harder and higher standards.

“For the past two decades the results for A level and GCSE have continuously improved. During that time there have been great investments in facilities, research, resources, environment and health, and improvements in training, teaching and coaching. The results are enthusiastically derided, disparaged and ridiculed as evidence of softer and lower standards.”

The latest and most serious example of this is what is almost universally thought of as the GCSE results fiasco. After 24 years of continuous improvement, results fell back – in English from 65.4 per cent achieving A* to C grades last year to 63.9 per cent this year. 

Not a great change overall, but one that saw many schools experience a significant and unexpected fall in their results. Many students were given D grades when they and their teachers confidently expected a C or above, based on previous work and test scores.

Hundreds of school and academy heads have contacted us at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), deeply concerned about this apparent unfairness, particularly when Ofqual revealed that it resulted from a purely statistical approach to grading.

This approach allows no scope for improvement resulting from exceptional effort, support, facilities and dedication of staff and students leading up to the examinations. In addition, Ofqual admitted that modules taken in January were marked “too generously”, so those in June (the majority) had to be marked more strictly to achieve the “norm” that the exam boards and the regulator were seeking. Sample comments from the heads who contacted us included the following. 

“The ‘comparative outcomes approach’ is itself controversial. Instead of setting a C grade standard and judging students’ work against it, the system sets the expected number of Cs and changes the standard to produce that number. Even if this was not official policy it is the way that these unjust results are being defended.”

“I think we should be arguing for criteria-referencing. If we accept norm-referencing, then schools are, in effect, in a very real and very unpleasant zero-sum game, in which the motivation for helping each other to succeed is severely threatened.”

One head spelt out his argument about the unfairness of the current system in more detail: “The movement in grade boundaries has had a significant impact on our students  – we estimate that 12 additional students would have achieved C-plus grades had reasonable and understandable grade boundaries been applied in the summer exam.”

He continued: “Ofqual’s use of comparable outcomes means that if a cohort has a certain ability profile at the age of 11 (key stage 2), it will get a set of grades in GCSE, five years later, that any other cohort with that ability profile would also get. The norm distribution is applied within the cohort but the whole cohort can be moved up or down depending upon their ability profile at the age of 11.

“This is used as the justification for keeping the number of C-plus grades pegged to the prior attainment of the cohort. It therefore completely ignores the effects of school improvement. Schools are placed under intense pressure to improve, so it is unsurprising that they have been finding more and more successful ways to enable students to achieve good examination grades.”

This headteacher explained that, like other schools in areas of economic disadvantage, they use a number of methods to try to “narrow the gap”, including: 

  • Providing additional tuition, summer schools, etc.

  • Monitoring students like never before.

  • Conducting focused intervention when necessary.

  • Providing additional  e-study opportunities.

  • Providing motivational events.

As a result, they are enabling more and more students to achieve the standards. The headteacher added: “In essence Ofqual is not maintaining standards between years – it is maintaining the number of grades awarded between years, which is not the same thing at all. Of course we should expect a brighter cohort to do better. But we should expect a better taught and better motivated cohort to do better too. The system is not allowing this to happen. That is clearly not fair to the students who this year are achieving standards that would have gained them C grades in previous years.”

If only measuring a student’s performance in exams could be done with such an incontrovertible method as the electronic stopwatch that recorded the wonderful achievement of Jessica and her fellow Olympians and Paralympians.

  • Bill Watkin is operational director at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). This article was written with contributions from Peter Chambers from the SSAT and Sue Williamson, chief executive of the SSAT. Visit


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